“Presumed Guilty” is a compelling tale of corruption and sloth within the Mexican criminal justice system — a small case made large by its implications: If this much effort has to be expended to exonerate a man so clearly innocent, what kind of medieval horror must the rest of the system be? Kinetic style, pulsating music and a compelling human story make this docu by lawyer Roberto Hernandez and Geoffrey Smith (“The English Surgeon”) a tale of righteous indignation and near tragedy. Pic has enough style and concept for the specialty market, but cable seems a surer thing.
The number of lives endangered in and around “Presumed Guilty” add to the compelling nature of a film that, a first blush, seems like MSNBC weekend jail fare, but slowly evolves into a story of national, and perhaps international, importance: Given the rate of convictions to arrests, the number of people imprisoned and the lopsided nature of Mexico’s courts, a nation seems to be curing its poverty problem by locking up its population.
One man snared in this rush to arrest was Antonio Zuniga, a breakdancer and street vendor, who in December 2005 was accused of a murder — which occurred across town from where he was, as several witnesses declared — on the basis of one man, the cousin of the deceased, who was never given the facts of the case or Zuniga’s tenuous connection with it. Zuniga was convicted and sentenced to 20 years in prison.
Hernandez and his lawyer wife, Layda Negrete, learned about the case while working on their doctorates, and toward the reformation of Mexican law — the vagaries of which make retrials and any evenhanded treatment by the courts all but impossible. Through what seems like more than a technicality — the original lawyer for Zuniga had forged his license — the husband-and-wife team got the convicted Zuniga a retrial. At which point, “Presumed Guilty” really takes off.
The directors are aided dramatically by the structure of Mexican hearings: The accuser has to face his accuser, before a judge, and state his testimony quite plainly and slowly. The procedural niceties of the Mexican courtroom — which in this case has all the grandeur of a motor vehicle bureau — give the proceedings an intimacy you’ll never see on “Law and Order.” The ineptitude and prejudices of the police and prosecutor come through loud and clear, as does the ego of the judge — the same judge who presided over Zuniga’s original conviction, and who has no intention of admitting he was wrong.
To say “Presumed Guilty” is a feel-good movie is putting it a bit strongly. There’s nothing uplifting about righting a wrong or having to clear an innocent man. But it’s certainly a tale of heroism in the face of overwhelming odds.
Production values are adequate.